Merchant of Redemption

During his first three decades on Sixth Street, Tom McKnight Sr. used his various businesses to educate his children and counsel them in the doctrine of social obligation. Now his son must balance the demands of activism against the realities of commerce

Ulan would prep DiDonato before he went into meetings with agency officials. "His primary interest was always the welfare of the residents," says DiDonato, who is now the executive director of Oakland's Festival at the Lake. "There are very few people I've met in my life with such a deep level of social consciousness. He is absolutely critical to that area." To this day, Ulan serves as a hub of political activity. On Mondays he allows a social worker to use the room in back of the grocery to counsel people.

"If people miss a crime meeting or need an update of the Redevelopment Agency's facade loan program, they know they can come in here and find out," he says.

As the community began to coalesce in 1990 and 1991, both Ulan and Perez knew that merchants and residents would require rapid change if they were to hold together. At the same time they helped advance long-term projects like affordable-housing construction, launching the kind of quick-hit initiatives that jazz a constituency.

First, they won grant money from the mayor and detailed 72 Conservation Corps workers to spackle and paint business facades all along Sixth Street in a one-day assault. "That day was important in an attitudinal sense," says Amalita Pasqual, the executive director of the SoMa Foundation, the area's economic development firm. "It was a turning point. It was something that didn't take forever. It was really ... I will never forget that day."

The choice was obvious for the next rapid-response project: clean streets. But when the SSMRA brought a steam clean machine to the neighborhood, it would provide Ulan's first lesson in nonprofit corruption.

The SSMRA contracted with the Mission Economic Development Association (MEDA) to run the operation. Alas, when the streets remained gritty, Ulan and Perez sniffed around and found that MEDA was siphoning off SOMA money to feed its projects in the Mission. With that, they convinced the Redevelopment Agency to break ties with MEDA and give the contract to the SSMRA. In 1992, Pasqual, a MEDA staffer at the time, set up the SoMa Foundation to package agency-backed loans to small businesses in the area. The same year, the SSMRA received nonprofit status, making it eligible for government funds.

More important, community groups struck a revolutionary agreement with the Redevelopment Agency. For the first time in its history, the agency agreed not to eradicate blight by bulldozing a neighborhood. Some had suggested a new economic engine for the area, a mall even. Instead, the SSMRA won approval for a mix of small business, light industrial, entertainment, and low-income housing.

In the intervening years, several affordable housing complexes have been built, and Pasqual has been steering a steady stream of loans to small businesses in the area. Still, the progress has been glacial, illustrating the difficulty of saving, not replacing, a neighborhood.

paula Zenti, an SSMRA volunteer and SoMa Foundation staffer, stands behind the counter at Tom's Grocery. Her lunch is heating in the microwave. And she's nagging Ulan about the grape boycott and recycling as he prices bags of the offending fruit. "Go ahead with your moneymaking, killing people," she says, referring to pesticides.

"I can't take this PC stuff," Ulan says with a groan.
A customer arrives. "Hey little shit," Zenti says. "We got a picture of you up at the office and we throw darts at it."

"You know what you can do with that," the customer, a man named Bill, says.
"We got a crime meeting tomorrow night," Zenti says. "Why don't you come by and stir up some more shit."

Bill leaves. "Bye, little shit," Zenti calls after him. The microwave bings, and she sits down in the chair by the register, throws back her curly blond hair, and begins to eat.

Yesterday, Zenti was even feistier. She ran into the store announcing that one of the women who work for the SoMa Foundation had been robbed. A homeless man had come and taken a wallet from a desk and escaped. Pumped up about crime, she nagged the neighborhood cops -- Officers Chris Pedrini and Dave Falzon -- when they came in to McKnight's store, as they do every day.

Why so much crime? she asked. Why can't you stop the drug dealing? She pointed to a dealer by the door, and said she'd been watching him deal day in, day out. She gave the cops the hotel room he used as a base of operation. Ulan cringed, and motioned to Zenti. The message: Ratting off drug dealers to the cops -- especially when you are in my store and within earshot of the dealer -- requires a little more decorum.

Of course, informing would just add one more job to Zenti's current resume: SSMRA volunteer program coordinator, SoMa Foundation administrative assistant, weekend waitress at It's Tops, and now, perhaps, police agent.

For Ulan and other merchants, Zenti is indispensable. She's their alter ego, the conduit through which they keep track of the community organizations they belong to without leaving their stores. In large part, she allows Ulan to strike the balance between entrepreneurship and activism that bedevils him.

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